Dorothy Allen-Pickard is concerned with “Questions of visibility, and invisibility, and who is at the margins”, citing it as the one common theme across her work. Her documentaries weave theatrical techniques and mesmerising sound design into portraits of her subjects, The Masses was featured at Sheff Doc/Fest in June of this year.
The Masses opens to have us stare directly into the eyes of Gabriel Ajakaiye, Micky Sampson, a nd Mohammed A. Uddin. From such a close and personal angle, we immediately are welcomed into the London borough of Bermondsey. The Church, The Mosque, and The Millwall Stadium. The three places of worship explored in the short documentary, as each disciple brings us into their worlds: separate and together. Gently probing each individual to see how their belief manifests each day, Dorothy interlaces the rhythms and rituals which characterise her home borough of Bermondsey.
After unknowingly sitting next to her in a screening and gushing about how much I enjoyed it, she was so lovely I followed up after the festival to find out how she got there. Logistically, because “They’ve lifted the rail card up to 30. That makes the transition to 27 a bit less painful”. But The Masses started with Dorothy asking Gabriel, Micky, and Mohammed: “So what do you do on a day to day basis that represents your relationship with religion?”.
Each character in The Masses is from a group that has been mis-represnted in some way in the media. “So while they’re all men, they are working class, two of them are people of colour and actually they’re completely misrepresented: they aren’t in front of the camera in ways that are actually true to their experiences, or their communities”. Allowing space for the three men, Dorothy’s process is highly collaborative, “I’m trying to understand them while they’re trying to understand each other.”
Undoubtedly, Dorothy’s production approach is informed by her involvement in the theatre; she is a founding member of the multimedia Breach Theatre company. The theatrical nature of her documentaries questions and disorientates her audience, in Objectified a tableau set piece abandons the typical talking heads style to have the contributors interact. Her most recent work A Sonic Pulse plays with sound, using workshops to illustrate what it is like to go clubbing for a person who is deaf.
“For me, the power of film is to upturn and contest the more mainstream narratives or representation”. Far from overwhelming, Dorothy sees the blank space exciting, “creative fuel”; her playful approach takes a step towards the possibility to “invent a new language, find a new way of doing it.” Whilst dealing with serious issues, there has to be space for humanising groups that are not given depth or compassion in the pages of well known *ahem* tabloid papers.
Studying Film and French at Warwick University was the perfect place to incubate her practise, “Being on a campus, in the Midlands, in the middle of nowhere was probably a really good place to start making films because, not that many people did it”. The partial isolation proved to be freeing, “There wasn’t much too much pressure and I could experiment, I made these really on the nose political documentaries”.
The first validation, “the stamp of approval from a proper place” came from The Guardian Young Peoples Documentary Prize. Looking back fondly on her winning film Dorothy “[thinks] they must of found it endearing like, oh, these post-teen students making these really earnest films together. At the time, I thought it was like, breaking new forms of cinema. I watch it back now like… [laughs]”.
Sheffield Doc/Fest this year boasted a 45% share of women directors, “which is amazing and definitely something to celebrate”. There is a double edged absence of funding and confidence that can affect women early in their careers as directors, “Women are attracted to documentary because they’re smaller budget, they’re smaller crews, they feel more feasible, it feels like you could find your own way of making documentary work rather than fiction”. Having explored mental health and homelessness Dorothy sees the attraction to Documentary as political: “It’s like, if you feel in anyway enraged by different aspects of society and you’re interested in making film… chances are you’re going to be like ‘I want to make a doc.’”.
“Britain is so fucked up at the minute, and that’s the place that I know, right? The place I’ve grown up in. Why would you not look at the things you know well, and make social commentary on something that you’re knees deep living in”. Having made two pretty heavy documentaries back to back, The Masses takes a much needed, softer approach.
“Working with funny brilliant people, but only talking about big tricky topics – the most challenging things in their life – I felt like I was just representing this one side of them.” This informed The Masses lighthearted and celebratory nature: “A lot of the lines I kept in were just the funny ones; when they’re being quite jokes and telling funny anecdotes.” You get to enjoy hanging out with the short so much, the ebbs and flows of each conversation, clearly filmed so with such care.
Despite the title, the film is an intimate and intricate observation. Dorothy’s aim was to relate the “Personal scenes with family, things that people only do by themselves for worship, religion, or belonging” with the contrast of larger “public spectacles of belonging”. Dorothy grew up in Bermondsey, and had an understanding and openness to the familiar space – affectionately poking fun at code-switching accents and shaving heads close enough to feel the breeze. Exploring that fine space between chants and a quiet prayer, between the spiritual to the social, the “Going from the intimate into the public, [is] something that we all do”.
Keep your eyes peeled for The Masses which will be released online soon.
You can see more of Dorothy’s work here.
by Reba Martin
Reba Martin recently graduated Film Studies from Manchester School of Art, and freelances as a Writer, Programmer, and Barista. Her top recommended Netflix Category is “Wacky 80’s Movies With a Strong Female Lead”. Letterboxd / @discorebekah
Categories: Women Film-makers